KABUL (Reuters) – Taliban insurgents set off a truck bomb on Tuesday in an attack on Afghan army commandos, killing three people and wounding 41, the defense ministry said, despite steps towards peace talks with the US-backed government. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast in the northern province of Balkh, saying on Twitter they had attacked the commandos. The defense ministry said two members of the commando force were killed and six wounded, while the rest of the casualties were civilians. The blast came as a Taliban delegation visited the Pakistani capital to discuss a peace process underpinned by an agreement between the Taliban and the United States on the withdrawal of US forces in exchange for Taliban security guarantees and a promise to open power-sharing talks with the government. But despite what many Afghans see as the best hope for peace since the latest phase of Afghanistan’s war began in 2001, the level of violence has remained high. Diplomats and officials say the violence is sapping the trust needed for talks. The government has asked repeatedly for a ceasefire before negotiations start in Qatar’s capital of Doha, a request the Taliban have refused. Diplomats say Pakistan, which has long had influence over different Afghan factions, including the Taliban, has in recent months been pushing for a reduction in violence. It was not immediately clear what issues would be discussed in the talks between the Taliban and the Pakistanis in Islamabad. Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; additional reporting by Abdul Matin Sahak; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Robert Birsel Image: Relatives react in front of a hospital, where their family member has been transferred for treatment after a truck bomb blast in Balkh province, in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan August 25, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer RECOMMENDATIONS Ethiopia says 75% of GERD construction completed, second filling in 2021 4 days ago Alexandria to launch its first surface metro project at $2.5 billion 4 days ago Egypt requires all passengers to provide PCR analysis document starting September 5 days ago KLM to resume passenger flights to Cairo after 3-year hiatus 5 days ago Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston cooperate for first time in 19 years 6 days ago Water already dwindling, Egypt’s farmers fear impact of dam 5 days ago Around 60,000 Egyptian gov workers to transfer to New Administrative Capital 6 days ago After 27 years, Amr Diab returns to acting in upcoming Netflix series 6 days ago Ancient Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia gets statue in New Administrative Capital 1 week ago Cairo police arrest two people for beating horse to death 7 days ago Conflicting tan lines: The burkini raises debate in Egypt 1 week ago Egypt reopens 21 coronavirus quarantine hospitals 2 weeks ago
Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church will resume masses on Friday starting next month after a six-month hiatus on the back of the coronavirus-related restrictions. The Coptic Orthodox Church cancelled most public church services in March in the wake of the pandemic, partially resuming some services from 3 August as case numbers went down. Masses were resumed in August on every day except Fridays. In an official statement on Sunday, the church said weekly Friday masses will resume starting from 11 September, with reduced numbers of congregants and other precautionary measures. Church-affiliated nurseries will also be allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity, the statement added. Some other church activities continue to be suspended, according to the statement. Egypt has been recording daily infections tallies of less than a thousand new cases consistently since 9 July. The daily toll dropped below the 200-case threshold from 2 -21 August. The lowest daily tally of infections in four months was recorded on Saturday, with only 89 new cases. Mosques were allowed to reopen for daily prayers at the end of June, having closed in March, although Friday prayer services were not permitted. However, the cabinet said last week that Friday prayers in mosques would be resumed from 28 August. Mosque community centres and condolence and wedding halls remain shut.
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The Turkish government formally converted a former Byzantine church into a mosque Friday, a move that came a month after it drew praise from the faithful and international opposition for similarly turning Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia into a Muslim house of prayer. A decision by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published in the country’s Official Gazette, said Istanbul’s Church of St. Saviour in Chora, known as Kariye in Turkish, was handed to Turkey’s religious authority, which would open up the structure for Muslim prayers. Like the Hagia Sophia, which was a church for centuries and then a mosque for centuries more, had operated as a museum for decades before Erdogan ordered it restored as a mosque. It was not immediately known when the first prayers would be held there. The church, situated near the ancient city walls, is famed for its elaborate mosaics and frescoes. It dates to the 4th century, although the edifice took on its current form in the 11th-12th centuries. The structure served as a mosque during the Ottoman rule before being transformed into a museum in 1945. A court decision last year canceled the building’s status as a museum, paving the way for Friday’s decision. And as with the Hagia Sophia, the decision to transform the Chora back into a mosque is seen as geared to consolidate the conservative and religious support base of Erdogan’s ruling party at a time when his popularity is sagging amid an economic downturn. Greece’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the move, saying that Turkish authorities “are once again brutally insulting the character” of another UN-listed world heritage site. “This is a provocation against all believers,” the Greek ministry said in a statement. “We urge Turkey to return to the 21st century, and the mutual respect, dialogue and understanding between civilizations.” Elpidophoros, the Greek Orthodox archbishop of America, wrote on Twitter: “After the tragic transgression with Hagia Sophia, now the Monastery of Chora, this exquisite offering of Byzantine culture to the world!” “The pleas and exhortations of the international community are ignored,” he wrote. Several Istanbul residents rushed to the building Friday, some hoping to hold prayers there, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported. “Like the Hagia Sophia, this is an important mosque for Muslims,” the agency quoted Istanbul resident Cuma Er as saying. “We came here to pray after we learned about the decision. But we have been told that it has not yet been opened for prayers. We are waiting for the opening.” Last month, Erdogan joined hundreds of worshipers for the first Muslim prayers in Hagia Sophia in 86 years, brushing aside the international criticism and calls for the monument to be kept as a museum in recognition of Istanbul’s multi-faith heritage. As many as 350,000 took part in the prayers outside the structure. Image: Details of St Savior in Chora church, known as Kariye in Turkish, in Istanbul, Friday, Aug. 21, 2020. Turkey on Friday formally converted former Byzantine church, St Savior in Chora, into a mosque, a month after it similarly turned Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia into a Muslim house of prayer, drawing international rebuke.(AP Photo/Emrah Gurel) RECOMMENDATIONS Egypt requires all passengers to provide PCR analysis document starting September 3 days ago KLM to resume passenger flights to Cairo after 3-year hiatus 3 days ago Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston cooperate for first time in 19 years 4 days ago Water already dwindling, Egypt’s farmers fear impact of dam 3 days ago Around 60,000 Egyptian gov workers to transfer to New Administrative Capital 4 days ago After 27 years, Amr Diab returns to acting in upcoming Netflix series 4 days ago Ancient Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia gets statue in New Administrative Capital 6 days ago Cairo police arrest two people for beating horse to death 5 days ago Conflicting tan lines: The burkini raises debate in Egypt 1 week ago Egypt reopens 21 coronavirus quarantine hospitals 2 weeks ago Video: CNN unveils “Inside The Grand Egyptian Museum” promotional film 2 weeks ago
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli soldiers fired at Palestinians who were to believed to be preparing to attack Israeli cars in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, the military said, and Palestinian officials said a Palestinian teenager was killed. A military spokeswoman said members of a “terrorist squad” were hit by the gunfire but she had no details on their condition. Palestinian health and municipal officials said Mohammad Hamdan, 16, was killed by Israeli forces and two other Palestinians were wounded. The Hamas Islamist militant group issued a statement mourning his death. Imrad Zahran, chairman of the local council of Hamdan s village, said the three youths were near a road used by Jewish settlers when the soldiers shot them. The military spokeswoman said the soldiers opened fire after spotting Palestinians carrying flammable material and preparing tyres which they planned to ignite and use to attack passing Israeli vehicles. Zahran said two of the Palestinians shot by the troops were treated in Palestinian hospitals and that the military, which had taken Hamdan away, later informed him that he had died of his wounds. A Palestinian health official also said Hamdan was killed. The military spokeswoman said the shooting occurred at a spot where similar attacks against Israeli vehicles have been carried out in the past. Palestinians regard Jewish settlements, seen as illegal by most countries in the world, as a bid by Israel to exert permanent control over the West Bank and destroy their aspirations for statehood. Israel has pledged to annex parts of the West Bank but suspended implementation at the United States request as part of a normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates last week. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East War. Palestinians seek the territory for a future state that would include the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
BEIRUT (AP) — A Lebanese lawyer filed a legal complaint on Wednesday against the country s president and prime minister for allegedly not taking action to remove dangerous material that had been stored at the port of Beirut. The material — 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilizers and explosives —ignited earlier this month, killing scores and wounding thousands of people. The move by lawyer Majd Harb is largely symbolic, based on the fact that President Michel Aoun and outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab received a security report two weeks before the Aug. 4, explosion, warning about the dangers of storing the chemical. Following the explosion, Aoun said that once he received the report, he asked his military adviser to immediately act on it and do what was necessary. However, it was not clear why the material was not removed. There has been no comment from Diab, who resigned under pressure few days after the blast. “They did not take any measures to prevent the explosion,” Harb s complaint said. It was published by the state-run National News Agency. Documents that surfaced after the blast, showed that many customs, port, intelligence, military and judicial officials, as well as political leaders, knew about the stockpile of ammonium nitrate at Warehouse 12 at Beirut s port and nothing was done. The explosion, which killed 180 people, injured about 6,000 and left nearly 300,000 people homeless was the most destructive single incident in Lebanon s history, leaving losses worth between $10 and $15 billion. There are 30 still missing after the explosion. So far authorities have detained 19 persons, many of them customs and port officials, and are questioning them. The head of the port and the country s customs chief were both formally detained earlier this week. There are concerns in the corruption-plagued country that the investigation will be manipulated and some have called for an international probe. Popular anger has swelled over the ruling elite s corruption and mismanagement. Lebanon s government, which is supported by the militant Hezbollah group and its allies, resigned on Aug. 10 and continues to serve in a caretaker capacity. There are no formal consultations underway on who will replace Diab as prime minister and no likely candidate has emerged.
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Two decades of Maya Husseini’s work to restore stained glass windows destroyed in the Lebanese civil war was lost in an instant in the seismic port explosion in Beirut. “I can say that in this blast, 20 years of my professional life was on the ground,” said Husseini, 60, who has worked on historic landmarks including many of Beirut’s churches. “Part of me has gone.” The Aug. 4 detonation of a massive quantity of explosive chemicals stored unsafely at Beirut port killed at least 178 people, injured some 6,000 and damaged buildings across a swathe of Beirut, carpeting streets in broken glass. Damaged buildings included the Sursock Museum, a modern and contemporary art museum reopened in 2015, whose vibrant stained glass had been painstakingly restored by Husseini. Its windows, which were particularly eye-catching at night when they were illuminated, were blown out by the blast. At least 10 of the projects Husseini has worked on since the 1975-90 civil war have been destroyed. “Every day I am getting phone calls,” she said at her workshop on the outskirts of Beirut. Husseini learnt her craft in France, sent by her father, a church engineer who used to order stained glass from overseas as leaded, stained glass was not common in Beirut prior to the war. One of the projects in which she took greatest pride was the 19th century St Louis Capuchin Cathedral in the Bab Idriss district of Beirut’s historic city center, an area where she recalls going to drink lemonade with her friends as a child. The windows of the church, which was destroyed in the war, were restored by Husseini over two years in a project completed around four years ago. “I had tried, as much as possible, to feel the history of this church,” she said. “At that point I broke down, it was as if I was injured, certainly not physically, but emotionally.” Husseini said she had been thinking about stopping work in two years but her plans had now changed. “Even if 20 years of my work has gone – and perhaps I won’t last in this work for another 20 years … we will rebuild.” Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alison Williams Image: Stained glass maker Maya Husseini works inside her workshop in Hazmiyeh, Lebanon August 13, 2020 Picture taken August 13, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir
BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s top Christian cleric called on Sunday for early parliamentary elections and a government formed to rescue the country rather than the ruling “political class” after the vast explosion in Beirut’s port threw the nation into turmoil. The now-caretaker cabinet resigned amid protests over the Aug. 4 blast that killed more than 172 people, injured 6,000, left 300,000 homeless and destroyed swathes of the Mediterranean city, compounding a deep financial crisis. Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai, who holds sway in Lebanon as head of the Maronite church from which the head of state must be drawn under sectarian power-sharing, warned that Lebanon was today facing “its biggest danger”. “We will not allow for Lebanon to become a compromise card between nations that want to rebuild ties among themselves,” Al-Rai said in a Sunday sermon, without naming any countries. “We must start immediately with change and quickly hold early parliamentary elections without the distraction of discussing a new election law and to form a new government.” Several MPs submitted their resignations over the port explosion but not in the number needed to dissolve parliament. Under the constitution, President Michel Aoun is required to designate a candidate for prime minister with the most support from parliamentary blocs. The presidency has yet to say when consultations will take place. There has been a flurry of Western and regional diplomacy after the blast, which fuelled public anger at politicians already accused of corruption and mismanagement. A financial meltdown has ravaged the currency and froze depositors out of their savings. Senior French and US officials have linked any foreign financial aid with implementation of long-demanded reforms, including state control over the port and Lebanese borders. Iran, seen as a major player in Lebanon through backing the powerful Shia movement Hezbollah that helped form the outgoing cabinet, has said the international community should not take advantage of Lebanon’s pain to exert its will. Al-Rai said Lebanese want a government that would reverse “national, moral and material” corruption, enact reforms and “rescue Lebanon, not the leadership and political class”. EXPLOSION ‘MYSTERY’ Aoun has said the investigation is looking into whether negligence, an accident or “external interference” caused the detonation of more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate warehoused for years without safety measures. Aoun’s influential son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who heads the largest Christian political bloc, said probing negligence should be quick as it was “known and documented”, but that the blast itself “is a mystery that requires deep investigation”. Bassil, whose party is allied with Hezbollah, also said in a televised speech on Sunday that threats of further Western sanctions would “drown Lebanon in chaos and discord”. His party would not “betray or backstab a Lebanese or act with those abroad against domestic interests”, he said. The United States has imposed sanctions on Hezbollah, which it classifies as a terrorist group. US officials have said those sanctions could be extended beyond direct affiliates of the heavily armed movement to its allies. During a visit to Beirut after the blast, French President Emmanuel Macron raised the prospect of sanctions as a last resort to spur Lebanese action on reform. Reporting by Laila Bassam and Ghaida Ghantous; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Frances Kerry Image: FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai speaks after meeting with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 15, 2020. Dalati Nohra/Handout via REUTERS
A Somali police officer says at least 10 people have been killed and more than a dozen others injured in an ongoing siege at a beachside hotel in Somalia s capital where security forces are battling Islamic extremist gunmen who have invaded the building, Security forces have so far shot dead two of the attackers in the hotel amid fears of hostage crisis inside the complex, said Ismail Mukhtar, spokesman of Somalia s information ministry.
ANKARA (Reuters) — President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday that the only solution to Turkey s dispute with Greece over energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean was through dialogue and negotiation, and Ankara was not seeking any “adventures” in the region. Tensions have risen since Turkey launched oil and gas exploration work in a disputed area of the Mediterranean on Monday. Athens condemned the move as illegal and sought support from European Union allies. France, which has called for EU sanctions against Turkey over its exploration work, held training exercises with Greek forces off the island of Crete on Thursday. Greek and Turkish officials signaled on Wednesday they were willing to resolve the dispute over their overlapping maritime claims, but vowed to protect their interests and blamed the other side for the stand-off. Erdogan said Greece was demonstrating an “ill-disposed” approach, and urged Athens to respect Turkey s rights. “The path to a solution in the eastern Mediterranean is via dialogue and negotiation,” he said. “If we act with common sense and reason, we can find a win-win solution that meets everyone s interests. We are not chasing any unnecessary adventures or seeking tensions.” Thursday s Greek-French military exercise off Crete was the first manifestation of President Emmanuel Macron s commitment to reinforce France s presence in the eastern Mediterranean. Without identifying the country, Erdogan said Greece was being pushed into taking “wrong steps” in the region by “a country that doesn t even have a coast in the eastern Mediterranean.” “Nobody should think too highly of themselves. Let me be very clear: Don t try to put on a show,” Erdogan said.
In the aftermath of the Beirut explosion on 4 August, fingers immediately pointed to the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah. The theory was that the explosion was a message to Lebanese Future Movement leader Saad Al-Hariri ahead of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) announcement of its verdict in the case of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in which four Hizbullah members are being tried in absentia. In some versions of the theory, Hizbullah had been smuggling explosive substances through the port of Beirut. In others, Hizbullah had kept the substances in storage for use in the next war with Israel or, alternatively, Israel had bombed the highly explosive ammonium nitrate as a means to get at Hizbullah. Such conjectures have since given way to the semi-official version, which maintains that sparks from nearby welding works ignited the 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that have been housed in the port for several years. But even so Hizbullah still remains in the public gaze. The group is widely seen as being responsible for the deterioration that has brought Lebanon to its present state. Even before the explosion and as the Lebanese economy plunged deeper into crisis, there was mounting criticism of Hizbullah militias. But the explosion focused popular anger on the Shia militant group more intensely than ever before, especially after the Lebanese 14 March Alliance started to mobilise its supporters to demand the fall of the current government, which is perceived as being Hizbullah-controlled. Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has denied allegations that the group controlled the port or stored weapons and ammunition there. “We do not operate or control the port. We do not intervene in its management. We do not know what happens or what exists there,” he said. Nasrallah demanded a fair and transparent investigation of what had taken place and appealed for a united front and cool-headedness in response to what he described as an “exceptional event in modern Lebanese history” that should not be politicised. While its management falls under the office of the president, currently Michel Aoun who is a Hizbullah ally, the Beirut port, like other national facilities, “is subject to the influence of the political forces, and this is determined by numerous factors,” an informed Lebanese source told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Basic government services and facilities are apportioned among the political forces. The port cannot be said to be controlled by any particular party by tradition. However, it is currently under the influence of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), given that Aoun is president.” Aoun founded the FPM in 1994. “According to the available information,” the source continued, “Hizbullah does not exercise any exceptional influence over the port, in contrast to Beirut airport, which is situated near the predominantly Shia Dahieh district south of Beirut.” Hizbullah has long exercised control over the airport, which the political party/militant organisation has designated as a red line. Defending that red line was one of the reasons it launched its takeover of Beirut on 7 May 2008 following the dismissal of the Hizbullah-affiliated security director at the airport. According to the source, the very location of the seaport in Beirut limits Hizbullah’s ability to assert its control over it and use it towards its own ends. “For one thing, it is adjacent to Christian and Sunni neighbourhoods. For another, the Mediterranean teems with US and Israeli warships that inspect any vessel suspected of transporting military equipment or substances to Hizbullah,” he said. “Hizbullah also has several ports in the south in predominantly Shia areas. More importantly, it relies on the land route from Syria, out of sight of western fleets, to obtain its needs.” Would Hizbullah agree to relinquish its arms in order to bring Lebanon back from the brink of collapse? “If forced to choose between a Lebanon reduced to famine and giving up its arms, it would choose famine,” the source said. “But this doesn’t mean that Hizbullah would not be open to making concessions. It knows as well as anyone else that Lebanon cannot survive the current crisis without international support. An indication of this awareness was seen in its positive reception of French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit.” The Lebanese press reported that Macron, during his meeting with political party representatives at the French embassy during his visit to Lebanon, had had a separate conversation with MP Mohamed Raad, the head of the Hizbullah parliamentary group. Hizbullah sources have refused to divulge the substance of the conversation, which reportedly lasted several minutes. The Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper described this as the first meeting between the French president and an official from Hizbullah, which Washington has designated as a terrorist organisation. The Al-Jumhuriya newspaper reported that Raad had said that “we have no problem with regard to speaking to each other. The problem is that we do not carry out what we agree on. The proof is that we signed the Taif Accord, but we have not implemented it.” Raad was also reported to have described the French president’s propositions concerning what needed to be done in Lebanon as “realistic”. The Hizbullah MP underscored the need to reinforce Lebanon and to preserve its strong points, “especially the power of the resistance that compensated for the inability of the state to fight for liberation, just as French freedom fighters did during the Nazi occupation” of France, he said, as quoted in Al-Akhbar. It was also reported that Hizbullah had asked Iran to erase a tweet by the secretary of the Iranian Expediency Discernment Council, an Iranian government organisation, Mohsen Rezaee, criticising Macron’s visit to Beirut in the aftermath of the explosion. Hizbullah realises that Macron’s visit extended a last hope to salvage the Lebanese economy, and it wants it to succeed while having to make as few concessions as possible. It appears that the conditions the French president made in order to martial international aid do not include the immediate disarmament of Hizbullah. However, they do include assurances of Lebanon’s “neutrality.” This is shorthand for the need for Hizbullah to refrain from intervening in the affairs of Lebanon’s neighbours and to cease its military adventures, already a tall order for the militant organisation. According to some reports, Macron suggested deferring the question of Hizbullah’s arms until after the US and Iran had reached a new agreement over the Iranian nuclear programme. But while Macron’s proposal may be more consistent with Lebanese realities, it is unlikely to be acceptable to the US and Saudi Arabia, which both want to disarm Hizbullah and oppose keeping the question of Hizbullah’s control over the Lebanese state up in the air. Aware of the potential resistance from Washington, Macron told US President Donald Trump that US sanctions against Hizbullah were counterproductive and that they only served to strengthen the very parties they sought to weaken. On the eve of the international donors conference to support Lebanon, an Élysée Palace official said that Macron had told Trump by telephone that the US needed to “reinvest” in Lebanon in order to help with reconstruction. The French official added that his government believed there was sufficient evidence to presume that the explosion in the Beirut port was an accident. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was equally concerned over the precarious situation in Lebanon and cautioned against attempts to destabilise Lebanon and to exploit the crisis to pave the way for increased foreign influence. In remarks to the press, Maas spoke of “non-government agents” funded from abroad, such as Hizbullah, that could exploit the political and security vacuum in Lebanon. The international donors conference was hosted by Paris on Sunday by video to secure pledges of financial support from participants and to discuss how to distribute aid in ways that reach its intended beneficiaries directly, rather than passing through the hands of corrupt officials. Due to the urgency of the aid, it appears that European donors at least will not broach the question of Hizbullah’s arms and instead will focus on the fight against corruption, the need to empower Lebanese civil society and the need to hold new elections. None of these issues present an immediate threat to Hizbullah’s influence. The group has extensive intelligence expertise, and it can continue to pursue its security and military activities despite a degree of foreign monitoring and plans to combat corruption. Indeed, a not insignificant portion of civil society activists in Lebanon are close to Hizbullah. Ultimately, whatever concessions Hizbullah makes in order to ensure the arrival of Western funding, it is unlikely to lose much of its influence over the Lebanese state and society.
BEIRUT (Reuters) — Angry Lebanese said the government’s resignation on Monday did not come near to addressing the tragedy of last week’s Beirut explosion and demanded the removal of what they see as a corrupt ruling class to blame for the country’s woes. A protest with the slogan “Bury the authorities first” was planned near the port, where highly explosive material stored for years detonated on Aug. 4, killing at least 163 people, injuring 6,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. Prime Minister Hassan Diab, announcing his cabinet’s resignation, blamed endemic graft for the explosion, the biggest in Beirut’s history and which compounded a deep financial crisis that has collapsed the currency, paralyzed the banking system and forced up prices. “I said before that corruption is rooted in every juncture of the state but I have discovered that corruption is greater than the state,” he said, blaming the political elite for blocking reforms. Talks with the International Monetary Fund have stalled amid a row between the government, banks and politicians over the scale of vast financial losses. “It does not end with the government’s resignation,” said the protest flyer circulating on social media. “There is still [President Michel] Aoun, [Parliament Speaker Nabih] Berri and the entire system.” For many Lebanese, the explosion was the last straw in a protracted crisis over the collapse of the economy, corruption, waste and dysfunctional government. The Beirut port mirrors the sectarian power system in which the same politicians have dominated the country since the 1975-90 civil war. Each factions has its quota of directors at the port, the nation’s main trade artery. “It’s a good thing that the government resigned. But we need new blood or it won’t work,” silversmith Avedis Anserlian told Reuters in front of his demolished shop. Aoun is required to consult with parliamentary blocs on who should be the next prime minister, and is obliged to designate the candidate with the most support. Forming a government amid factional rifts has been daunting in the past. Now with growing public discontent and the crushing financial crisis, it could be difficult to find someone willing to be prime minister. Meanwhile, residents of Beirut continued to pick up the pieces as search operations for those still missing went on. Officials have said the blast could have caused losses of US$15 billion, a bill Lebanon cannot pay. Ihsan Mokdad, a contractor, surveyed a gutted building in Gemmayze, a district a few hundreds meters from the port. “As the prime minister said, the corruption is bigger than the state. They’re all a bunch of crooks. I didn’t see one MP visit this area. MPs should have come here in large numbers to raise morale,” he said. ___ Reporting by Beirut bureau; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Giles ElgoodImage: A view of graffiti at the damaged port area in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon August 11, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay
BEIRUT (Reuters) — Lebanese called for protests outside Baabda palace on Monday to demand President Michel Aoun step down after a massive explosion that has ignited anti-government protests and resignations by several ministers, with the justice minister the latest to go. Last week s port warehouse detonation of more than 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate killed 158 people, injured more than 6,000 and destroyed a swathe of the Mediterranean city, compounding months of political and economic meltdown and prompting furious calls for the entire government to step down. The cabinet, formed in January with the backing of the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its allies, was due to meet on Monday under pressure with many ministers wanting to resign, ministerial and political sources said. The information and environment ministers quit on Sunday as well as several lawmakers. The justice minister resigned on Monday, citing the catastrophic explosion. “The entire regime needs to change. It will make no difference if there is a new government,” Joe Haddad, an engineer, told Reuters. “We need quick elections.” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Saturday he would request early parliamentary elections. Aoun had previously said explosive material was stored unsafely for years at the port. He later said the investigation would consider whether the cause was external interference as well as negligence or an accident. Beirut s governor said many foreign workers and truck drivers remained missing and were assumed to be among the casualties, complicating efforts to identify the victims. Anti-government protests in the last two days have been the biggest since October when demonstrators took to the streets over an economic crisis rooted in corruption, waste and mismanagement. Protesters accused the political elite of exploiting state resources for their own benefit. Some Lebanese doubt change is possible in a country where sectarian politicians have dominated the country since the 1975-90 civil war. “It won t work, it s just the same people. It s a mafia,” said Antoinette Baaklini, an employee of an electricity company that was demolished in the blast. Workers picked up fallen masonry near the building where wall graffiti mocked Lebanon s chronic electricity crisis: “Everyone else in the world has electricity while we have a donkey.” “It will always be the same. It is just a political game, nothing will change,” said university student Marilyne Kassis. An emergency international donor conference on Sunday raised pledges worth nearly 253 million euros (US$298 million) for immediate humanitarian relief. But foreign countries demand transparency over how the aid is used, wary of writing blank checks to a government perceived by its own people as deeply corrupt. Some are concerned about the influence of Shi ite movement Hezbollah, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a televised news conference on Monday that countries should refrain from politicizing the Beirut port blast. He called on the United States to lift sanctions against Lebanon.
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon s information minister resigned on Sunday as the country grapples with the aftermath of the devastating blast that ripped through the capital and raised public anger to new levels. The resignation comes as public anger is mounting against the ruling elite, blamed for the chronic mismanagement and corruption that is believed to be behind the explosion in a Beirut Port warehouse. Hundreds of tons of highly explosive material was stored in the waterfront hangar, and a blast sent a shock wave that killed at least 160 people, wounded nearly 6,000 and defaced the coastline of Beirut — destroying hundreds of buildings. Manal Abdel-Samad said in her resignation letter that change remained “elusive” and she regrets failing to fulfill the aspirations of the Lebanese people. “Given the magnitude of the catastrophe caused by the Beirut earthquake that shook the nation and hurt our hearts and minds, and in respect for the martyrs, and the pains of the wounded, missing and displaced, and in response to the public will for change, I resign from the government,” she wrote. The disaster fueled angry demonstrations Saturday where protesters set up gallows and nooses in central Beirut and held mock hanging sessions of cut-out cardboard images of top Lebanese officials. Demonstrators held signs that read “resign or hang.” The protests quickly turned violent when the demonstrators pelted stones at the security forces, who responded with heavy volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets. One police officer was killed and dozens of people were hurt in confrontations that lasted for hours. Protesters also fanned out around the city, storming a couple of government ministries. They briefly took over the foreign ministry, saying it will be the headquarters of their movement. In the economy and energy ministries, the protesters ransacked offices and seized public documents claiming they would reveal how corruption has permeated successive governments. Five of the parliament s 128 members have also announced their resignation since Saturday— including three legislators of the Christian Kataeb party, a member of the Socialist Progressive Party and an independent. Abdel-Samad s resignation comes amid reports that another government official — the environment minister — is expected to resign, adding to the challenges facing Prime Minister Hassan Diab. Diab took over in January and has since been beset by crises. The government, backed by the powerful militant Hezbollah group and its allies, announced it is defaulting on Lebanon s sovereign debt and has since been engaged in difficult, internally divisive talks with the International Monetary Fund for assistance. The coronavirus restrictions deepened the impact of the economic and financial crisis and fueled public anger against the new government. Lebanese have criticized Diab s government for being unable to tackle the challenges, saying it represents the deep-seated political class that has had a hold of the country s politics since the end of the civil war in 1990. Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned even before the blast, citing an absence of “effective will to achieve comprehensive structural reform” and competing leadership. In a televised speech Saturday evening, Diab said the only solution was to hold early elections. He called on all political parties to put aside their disagreements and said he was prepared to stay in the post for two months to allow time for politicians to work on structural reforms. The offer is unlikely to soothe the escalating fury on the street. It is also expected to trigger lengthy discussions over the election law amid calls for introducing changes to the country s sectarian-based representation system. The information minister s resignation comes ahead of an international conference co-hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres aimed at bringing donors together to supply emergency aid and equipment to Lebanon. Previous offers of aid have been contingent on carrying out significant government reforms to tackle corruption.
BEIRUT (Reuters) — French President Emmanuel Macron called for urgent support for Lebanon where he arrived on Thursday, two days after a devastating blast ripped through Beirut, killing 145 people and generating a seismic shock that was felt across the region. Dozens are still missing after Tuesday s blast at the port that injured 5,000 people and left up to a quarter of a million without homes fit to live in, hammering a nation already reeling from economic meltdown and a surge in coronavirus cases. A security source said the death toll had reached 145, and officials said the figure was likely to rise. Macron, making the first visit by a foreign leader since the explosion, promised to help organize international aid for Lebanon but said its government must implement economic reforms and crack down on corruption. “If these reforms are not made, Lebanon will continue to suffer,” Macron said after being met by his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun at Beirut airport. At the port, destroyed by Tuesday s giant mushroom cloud and fireball, families gathered seeking news about the missing, amid public anger at the authorities for allowing highly explosive material to be stored there for years in unsafe conditions. “They will scapegoat somebody to defer responsibility,” said Rabee Azar, a 33-year-old construction worker, speaking near the smashed remains of the port s grain silo, surrounded by other mangled masonry and flattened buildings. Prime Minister Hassan Diab declared three days of mourning from Thursday after the most devastating explosion ever to hit the city that is still scarred by civil war three decades ago. With banks in crisis, a collapsing currency and one of the world s biggest debt burdens, Economy Minister Raoul Nehme said Lebanon had “very limited” resources to deal with the disaster, which by some estimates may have cost the nation up to US$15 billion. He said the country needed foreign aid. Demanding reform Offers of medical and other immediate aid have poured in, as officials have said hospitals, some heavily damaged in the blast, do not have enough beds and equipment. But Lebanon was already struggling to secure longer term, economic support. The government s failure to tackle a runaway budget, mounting debt and endemic corruption has prompted Western donors to demand reform. Gulf Arab states who once helped Lebanon have balked at bailing out a nation they say is increasingly influenced by their rival Iran. Lebanon s president blamed the explosion on 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, used in fertilizers and bombs, that had been stored for six years at the port after it was seized. He promised to investigate and hold those responsible to account. The government ordered some port officials to be put under house arrest. But ordinary Lebanese, who have lost jobs and watched savings evaporate in the financial crisis, blamed politicians in charge during decades of state corruption and bad governance. “Our leaders are crooks and liars. I don t believe any investigation they will do. They destroyed the country and they re still lying to the people. Who are they kidding?” said Jean Abi Hanna, 80, a retired port worker whose home was damaged and daughter and granddaughter injured in the blast. An official source familiar with preliminary investigations blamed the incident on “inaction and negligence”, saying “nothing was done” to remove hazardous material. All hell broke loose Some local media reported sightings of drones or planes flying in the area shortly before the explosion and some Beirut residents said they saw missiles fired. But officials have denied the incident was the result of any attack. A Lebanese security source said the initial blaze that sparked the explosion was caused by welding work. Veteran politician Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon s Druze community, called for an international investigation, saying he had “no trust” in the government to find out the truth. The White House said the US government had still not ruled out the possibility that Tuesday s explosion was an attack. People who felt the explosive force said they had witnessed nothing comparable in years of conflict and upheaval in Beirut, which was devastated by the 1975-1990 civil war and since then has experienced big bomb attacks, unrest and a war with Israel. “First we heard one sound. Seconds later there was a big explosion. All hell broke loose,” said Ibrahim Zoobi, who works near the port. “I saw people thrown five or six meters.” Seismic tremors from the blast were recorded in Eilat on Israel s Red Sea coast, about 580 km (360 miles) away. Beirut Governor Marwan Abboud told Al Hadath TV total losses from the blast could reach $15 billion, including losses to businesses amid the broader fallout. Operations have been paralyzed at Beirut port, Lebanon s main route for imports needed to feed a nation of more than six million people, forcing ships to divert to smaller ports. The World Bank said it would work with Lebanon s partners to mobilize financing for reconstruction. But it was unclear whether this would affect Lebanon s difficult negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.
Three Egyptian nationals were killed in the massive warehouse explosion that hit the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on Tuesday, the Egyptian foreign ministry said in a statement on Wednesday. The Egyptian embassy in Lebanon will take all necessary measures to bring home the bodies of the three Egyptian victims, who have been identified as Ibrahim Abdel-Mohsen El-Qaffas, Aly Ismail Shehata and Roshdy Ahmed El-Gamal, the ministry said. A large blast at the city s port damaged buildings across the capital and sent a giant mushroom cloud into the sky, with Lebanese officials blaming a highly explosive material, ammonium nitrate, stored in a warehouse for six years. The explosion has killed at least 100 people and injured more than 4,000, according to Lebanon s Red Cross. The embassy said it would continue its efforts to ensure the safety of the Egyptian community in Lebanon and provide them with necessary assistance. An Egyptian field hospital in Beirut is providing assistance to the victims of the devastating blast, the ministry said earlier, adding that the facility started to receive a number of cases on Tuesday. The Egyptian embassy also announced that Egypt airlifted an aid package to Beirut on Wednesday. Egyptian officials have been in contact with the Lebanese side to identify their needs, it added. Earlier on Wednesday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi promised to provide full support to Lebanon during a phone call with his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun. “El-Sisi affirmed the solidarity of the government and people of Egypt with its brothers in Lebanon, and the willingness to harness all capabilities to assist and support Lebanon in its ordeal,” the Egyptian presidency said.
Two enormous explosions rocked Beirut s port on Tuesday, killing at least 50 people and wounding thousands, shaking distant buildings and leaving the Lebanese capital in fear and chaos. The deafening second blast sent an enormous orange fireball into the sky, flattened the harbourside and sent a tornado-like shockwave ripping through the city, shattering windows kilometres away. Bloodied casualties stumbled among debris and burning buildings across central Beirut as Health Minister Hamad Hassan reported an initial estimated toll of 50 dead and 3,000 injured, calling it "a disaster in every sense of the word". A soldier at the port told AFP: "It s a catastrophe inside. There are corpses on the ground." Relatives of people who worked inside the blast zone gathered at a security cordon as they scrambled for news of their loved ones. "Ambulances are still lifting the dead," the soldier said. The blasts were heard as far away as Nicosia on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 240 kilometres (150 miles) away. Makrouhie Yerganian, a retired schoolteacher in her mid-70s who has lived near the port for decades, said it was "like an atomic bomb". "I ve experienced everything, but nothing like this before," even during the country s 1975-1990 civil war, she said. "All the buildings around here have collapsed. I m walking through glass and debris everywhere, in the dark." The country s Red Cross reported "hundreds of wounded" and called for urgent blood donations. The cause of the explosions was not immediately known but a top official, General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim, said confiscated explosive materials had been stored at the city s port. "It appears that there is a warehouse containing material that was confiscated years ago, and it appears that it was highly explosive material," he said. An Israeli government who requested anonymity told AFP: "Israel had nothing to do with the incident." Benjamin Strick, who works with investigations website Bellingcat, said on Twitter that the explosions appeared to have been centred on a 130-metre (420 foot)-long grey warehouse alongside a dock inside the port zone. Retired US nuclear scientist Cheryl Rofer wrote on Twitter that the "red cloud" of the massive blast was "very likely ammonium nitrate", a common agricultural fertiliser that is a highly explosive compound. Lebanon s President Michel Aoun called for "urgent" defence council talks, while Prime Minister Hasan Diab declared Wednesday a day of mourning. We saw the mushroom AFP video footage of the aftermath of the blasts showed areas of near-complete devastation, with cars flipped onto their roofs like children s toys, and warehouses flattened. Soldiers tried to clear the streets of dazed civilians, some of them drenched from head to toe in their own blood. Volunteers led stunned survivors away to seek medical help, using their shirts as makeshift bandages to staunch deep gashes on their faces and bodies. "We heard an explosion, then we saw the mushroom," said a Beirut resident who witnessed the second, deafening explosion from her balcony in the city s Mansourieh district. "The force of the blast threw us backwards into the apartment." An AFP correspondent at the scene minutes after the blast said every shop in the Hamra commercial district had sustained damage, with entire storefronts destroyed, windows shattered and many cars wrecked. Outside the Clemenceau Medical Centre, dozens of wounded people, many covered in blood, were rushing to be admitted to the centre, including children. A huge blaze sent up black smoke from the port area, as helicopters dumped water on burning buildings. A ship moored off the port was on fire. The port zone was cordoned off by the security forces, allowing access only to a string of ambulances, fire trucks with wailing sirens and relatives of workers who had been inside. Like an earthquake Hundreds immediately shared their shock and grief on social media. "Buildings are shaking," tweeted one resident, while another wrote: "An enormous, deafening explosion just engulfed Beirut. Heard it from miles away." Online footage from a Lebanese newspaper office showed blown out windows, scattered furniture and demolished interior panelling. The explosions hit a country already reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades which has left nearly half of the population in poverty, as well as the coronavirus pandemic. Lebanon s economy has collapsed in recent months, with the local currency plummeting, businesses closing en masse and poverty soaring at the same alarming rate as unemployment. The explosions also came three days before a UN tribunal s verdict on the murder of former Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri, killed in a huge 2005 truck bomb attack. Four alleged members of the Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah are on trial in absentia at the court in The Hague over the huge Beirut bombing that killed Sunni billionaire Hariri and 21 other people. A woman in the city centre Tuesday told AFP the blast "felt like an earthquake" and "bigger than the explosion in the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005".
JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military said it thwarted an infiltration attempt from Syria early Monday, likely killing four suspected militants it accused of trying to plant explosives. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said Israeli troops earlier had been in ambush following “irregular” activity in the Golan Heights. Israeli troops opened fire on the suspected militants, some of whom were armed, after observing them placing the explosives on the ground, Conricus said. The Israeli military released video showing the four fleeing before disappearing in an explosion caused by the strike. The Israeli military has yet to determine if the four had ties to Iran or Hezbollah, two Syrian allies. However, Conricus said Israel held the Syrian government responsible for the incident. Syria s state-run SANA news agency did not immediately acknowledge the Israeli strike. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and later annexed the territory. The U.S. is the only country to have recognized Israel s annexation. The incident comes amid heightened tension on Israel s northern frontier following a recent Israeli airstrike that killed a Hezbollah fighter in Syria. Following the airstrike, the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights was hit by explosives fired from Syria and Israel responded by attacking Syrian military positions and beefing up its forces in the area. Israel has been bracing for further retaliation and last week it said it thwarted an infiltration attempt from Lebanon by Hezbollah militants, setting off one of the heaviest exchanges of fire along the volatile Israel-Lebanon frontier since a 2006 war between the bitter enemies. Israel considers Hezbollah to be its toughest and most immediate threat. Since battling Israel to a stalemate during a monthlong war in 2006, Hezbollah has gained more battlefield experience fighting alongside the Syrian government in that country s bloody civil war. After 40 years of calm, the Israel-Syrian frontier has heated up in recent years as Iran has tried to establish a military foothold on Israel s doorstep while helping Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country s yearslong war. Hezbollah also has aided Assad.
Egypt s Coptic Orthodox Church announced on Saturday it is preparing to gradually reopen its churches on Monday. Churches nationwide closed in mid-March in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Starting 3 August, churches will be allowed to hold masses, prayers and funerals with no more than one individual on every bench in the church to be compliant with the precautionary measures against the virus. "Masses can be performed every day except on Fridays," a statement by the Church read. Funeral prayers of those who died from the coronavirus will be held at the tombs, not in churches, to preserve general health, the statement noted. The Orthodox Church said the decision to gradually reopen churches is the result of the reduced infection and death rates the country has been witnessing in the past few weeks. Egypt s Christians make up about 10-14 percent of the country s 100 million-plus population, with the vast majority of Christians in Egypt belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Egypt has suspended mass prayers at mosques and shut down churches in March in a move aimed at curbing the outbreak of the pandemic in the populous country.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) — The United States on Wednesday imposed new sanctions aimed at cutting off funds for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad s government and warned that anyone doing business with Damascus was also at risk of being blacklisted. Assad s son, Hafez, was among four people and 10 entities, including a Syrian army unit, targeted by Washington over accusations they either aided government funding through luxury real estate construction — sometimes on land belonging to displaced civilians — or prolonged the nearly decade-long war. “More sanctions will follow as part of a sustained campaign of economic and political pressure to deny the Assad regime the resources it uses to wage war against the Syrian people,” the White House said in a statement. A crackdown by Assad on protesters in 2011 led to civil war, with Iran and Russia backing the government and the United States supporting the opposition. Millions of people have fled Syria and millions more have been internally displaced. The US sanctions, imposed under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act and other measures, come as Assad grapples with a deepening economic crisis. Syria was already subject to US and European Union sanctions that have frozen assets of the state and hundreds of companies and individuals. Washington also bans American export and investment in Syria, as well as transactions involving oil and hydrocarbon products. Wednesday s action marks the second round of sanctions imposed by Washington under the Caesar Act, which can freeze the assets of anyone dealing with Syria, regardless of nationality, and cover many more sectors. It also targets those dealing with entities in Syria from Russia and Iran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the sanctions were intended to push Assad to take irreversible steps toward ending the country s war as called for by the United Nations Security Council. A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also cautioned investors in the Middle East, including Gulf nations, that the United States would not hesitate to blacklist those who help the Syrian government “steal land from displaced civilians to profit and support” Assad s government. Syrian authorities blame Western sanctions for widespread civilian hardship in the country, where a collapse of the currency has led to soaring prices and people struggling to afford food and basic supplies. US Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft told a Security Council meeting on Syria on Wednesday that Washington s sanctions on Syria are not intended to harm the country s people and do not target humanitarian assistance.
Gunmen killed 14 villagers in central Nigeria s Kogi state on Wednesday, police said, blaming the attack on communal violence. The night-time attack on Agbudu village in Koton-Karfe area also left six people seriously injured, said state police commissioner Ede Ayuba in a statement. "I was there and I was part of those who picked up some of the dead bodies we are talking about," he said. He said 13 of the dead were members of the same family. "In that family, only one person survived. His uncle, his mother, his uncle s wife, his younger brother, his senior brother s wife, his wife and all his children were killed," he said. Ayuba said an investigation had been launched into the incident, adding that a long-standing row over land rights was a possible motive.
JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli forces thwarted an attempt by Hezbollah to infiltrate across the Lebanon frontier on Monday, which the Iranian-backed Shia group denied. “Hezbollah should know it is playing with fire,” Netanyahu said in a televised address from Israel s defense ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. He cautioned that any attacks from Lebanese territory would draw a powerful response. Earlier, a Reuters witness in Lebanon counted dozens of Israeli shells hitting the disputed Shebaa Farms area along the frontier. Fires burned and smoke rose from the area, but no casualties were reported by Israel or Hezbollah. Occupied by Israel, the Shebaa Farms is claimed by Lebanon. The United Nations regards it as part of Syrian territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. Israeli forces have been on alert along the northern border in anticipation of Hezbollah retaliation for the killing of one of its members a week ago in an alleged Israeli attack on the edge of the Syrian capital Damascus. “A Hezbollah squad infiltrated Israeli territory,” Netanyahu said. Saying that Lebanon had “paid a heavy price” for Hezbollah attacks on Israel in the past, Netanyahu cautioned the group s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, “not to repeat this mistake.” An Israeli military spokesman said between three and five Hezbollah militants had taken part in the operation and had crossed back into Lebanon. Hezbollah, which last fought a war with Israel in 2006, denied that its forces tried to cross the frontier and said in a statement that the Shebaa Farms incident was “one-sided”. “There were no clashes or opening of fire from our side in today s events,” Hezbollah said. “Our response to the martyrdom of Ali Kamel [Mohsen] […] will surely come,” it said, referring to the fighter who died in Syria. A Lebanese source said Hezbollah had fired a guided missile at an Israeli tank. Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters he was unaware of any such incident. After the killing of two Hezbollah members in Damascus last August, Nasrallah vowed to respond if Israel killed any more of its fighters in Syria. However the group s deputy leader on Sunday said an all-out war with Israel was unlikely. Hezbollah fighters have deployed in Syria as part of Iranian-backed efforts to support President Bashar al-Assad. Israel sees the presence of Hezbollah and Iran in Syria as a strategic threat, and has mounted hundreds of raids on Iranian-linked targets there.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued a decision decision to convert the sixth-century Chora Museum into a mosque after 75 years of turning it into a museum. By this provocative decision, Erdogan threatens international peace and coexistence of civilizations. Such decision comes one month after the conversion of the Hagia Sophia museum, which was originally a church, into a mosque. The Chora Church was bui